First-time business owners Lee and Vanessa Acree say a veteran staff, culture of teamwork and thorough estimating efficiently drive vehicles through their shop.Painter Mitch Harvey mixes PPG paint.Colin Harvey reassembles a car in the blueprint department.Jim Margenti (left) and Steven Murrer work in the body shop.Painter Nate Meader sprays PPG.

Body tech takes reins of Morse Evergreen Auto Body and ‘keeps it local’

Husband-and-wife team with entrepreneurial spirit take on challenges and rewards of shop ownership

Evergreen, Colo.—Body technician Lee Acree was finishing a job at Morse Evergreen Auto Body in November 2015, when the owner, Tony Perry, walked through the shop, getting ready to lock up for the day. A casual conversation began. It soon took a turn, unexpectedly for both.

“He happened to mention he was looking to get out of the business eventually,” Acree said. “I said I was interested.”

Perry told Parts & People he was adamant about not selling to a large MSO. “I didn’t want to see it become just another ABRA,” he said, adding that the Evergreen business had been approached as a shop of interest. “I wanted to keep it locally owned for our community.”

Acree had nurtured a career in the collision repair industry, from dealerships to mom-and-pop shops, but owning his own shop had always been in the back of his mind, he said. “It would be my first gig running the show.”

Acree and his wife, Vanessa, “kicked the idea around” until the first of the year in 2016. “We wrapped our head around ownership to determine if it was something we wanted to get involved in, because it’s a huge undertaking,” he said.

Once the decision was made, they began visiting with banks for loan approvals. “We had great credit,” Vanessa Acree said, “which made financing easier, but we also wanted to purchase the building along with the business. For anyone considering buying a business who can’t immediately afford to buy the property, make sure there’s legal documentation on how you can do it down the road. Do your due diligence and have a good attorney and CPA.

During the process, Acree and Perry kept negotiations and news of the potential sale between themselves. “We kept it low-key in the shop, which was tough, but we wanted to make sure it was going to happen,” Acree said.

The couple assumed ownership this February.

Acree came into ownership with no previous management experience. So how does he like working “on” the business, instead of “in” the business? “It’s fun and it’s challenging. I still feel like I should be out there in the shop working sometimes, but I’m finding my place,” he said, as he gestured across his organized and tidy office. “It’s a whole new ball game.”

As new business owners, lines of credit from dealerships for parts are difficult to come by, if at all, and when they do, they’re often only for $2,500 to $5,000 because they are new owners, Vanessa Acree said.

The previous owners, Tony and Janet Perry, however, had good repoire with the shop’s dealerships, which has translated into working relationships with the Acrees for opening credit lines, she said.


Teamwork drives down cycle time

There’s a staff meeting every morning before they begin their day to discuss where vehicles are in the cycle, parts that are to be delivered, expected supplemental approvals and to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. It helps, too, Acree said, if someone, such as an estimator, for example, is out one day so the rest of the team can fill in and follow a job through the repair process.

“It amazing how many people touch a car, from the beginning of the process to handing the keys off,” Vanessa Acree said. “Everyone is aware of every car’s stage.”

Morse Evergreen Auto Body can have up to 30 vehicles in process at any one time, up to 100 a month. “There’s not a lot of shops that can do what we do, getting them in and out,” Lee Acree said. “We have a separate blueprint department for teardown, parts ordering and supplements, then onto the body shop and paint department, and back to blueprint for reassembly. It’s more of a team assembly line process, rather than having individual techs handling an entire job.”

Acree added that he’s worked with many estimators throughout his career and he said his are the best ones he’s seen. “If we can get the initial estimate to 90 percent complete before the car goes to blueprinting, it makes a huge cycle time difference.”

The Acrees inherited a staff of 14 employees, though they will make an additional hire. “We like to run five in the body shop, Three in paint, a detailer, two estimators, one parts sourcer and an office manager,” he said.

At present, the Acrees are working on getting the shop’s staff up to speed with their I-CAR training and obtaining more DRPs as they grow into their new role as business owners, Lee Acree said.

“It’s worked out the way it was supposed to.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.